Horse racing is one of the original sports that wagers were placed on. While betting on horse races dates back to the 1600s, it became popularized when pari-mutuel betting was introduced in the 1860s. This marked the beginning of legal sports betting on thoroughbred horses within the US. During this time, horse racing gained massive popularity. This is also around the time when the Triple Crown was created.
While sports betting was outlawed in Illinois like the rest of the country, Pari-mutuel betting remained legal. Betting on horses became even easier when the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978 allowed tracks to broadcast and take wagers from out-of-state bettors.
Even though wagering on horses has been legal, now that Illinois has legalized mobile sports betting, it can be even easier. Most sportsbooks carry horse racing betting odds for tracks around the country. So, this seems like a perfect opportunity to take an in-depth look at just how betting on horse racing works.
What is pari-mutuel betting?
Pari-mutuel betting is one of the oldest legal forms of gambling in the world. It is an entirely different form of wager from standard sports betting. Pari-mutuel betting allows bettors to place wagers into a pool rather than wager against house money. This means that every wager on a horse race enters a pool rather than wagering directly against a sportsbook. The pool of all the bets is then divided up amongst the winners. You are paid depending on how much your initial wager is; this will be explained below.
Pari-mutuel betting is also different from traditional sports betting as there are no pre-set odds. Odds are not released until a race has begun. This is because the odds are dependent on how many wagers in total were placed and how many winners the pool must be divided amongst.
How does pari-mutuel betting work?
Pari-mutuel betting may seem complicated, but it can be fairly simple once broken down. Essentially, you choose a horse to win the race. If that horse wins the race, then the winnings will be split between everyone who picked that horse. Payouts are determined by how much was wagered on the winning horse.
In the following example, we will demonstrate a “win” bet which is what has been described above. We will have a three-horse race, and the amount next to each horse will represent the total amount wagered on each horse. These numbers will be kept simple, but keep in mind there is typically much more money on the line.
- Horse #1 $400
- Horse #2 $250
- Horse #3 $300
So, for this example, there was a total of $950 wagered on the race. The house will usually take a cut off the top (around 10%). After the house’s cut, the total amount in the pool is $855. To understand how your odds work, you will need to divide the total pool remaining by the total amount wagered on each horse.
- Horse #1 $2.14
- Horse #2 $3.42
- Horse #3 $2.85
These amounts represent how much a bettor would win per dollar they wagered. Also, notice that the less money wagered on a horse, the higher the total payout available.
Now let’s say we wagered $10; this would be your potential winning payouts.
- Horse #1 $21.4
- Horse #2 $34.2
- Horse #3 $28.5
This is what makes pari-mutuel betting so popular, as all of these odds are greater than +200.
While popular pari-mutuel betting is a high-risk form of betting, this is due to the uncertainty, not just on a horse but also on value. A bet can look good when you place the wager, but if it is watered down too much with other bets, then the payout is almost not worth it.
Quick guide to betting on horse races
The best part about betting on horse races is that there are so many different types of bets to make. This section will provide a brief overview of the different types of bets you can make on horse races. All of these horse racing wagers are considered pari-mutuel bets.
Straight-bets are some of the most straightforward types of bets you can make at a horse track. Here are some of the most popular forms.
- Win wager: A Win wager is what is shown in the example above. For a Win wager to hit, you must choose the horse that wins the race.
- Place wager: A Place wager allows a little more room for error for bettors. While rules of place wagers vary around the world in North America, a Place wager will win if the chosen horse finishes in first or second.
- Show wager: A Show wager is the most flexible of the pari-mutuel bets. For a Show wager to hit, the chosen horse has to finish in either first, second, or third.
While the previous section covered straight-bets, exotic wagers more resemble a parlay. Exotic wagers allow you to wager on multiple horses in the same event for increased odds and payouts. These wagers are higher-risk bets but can be much fun. Here are some of the most popular types.
- Exacta: For an Exacta bet to hit, you have to pick the exact horse to come first and the exact horse to come second. These wagers can be highly lucrative but are also challenging. You can also “box” your wager, which means that the two horses you chose can come in any order as long as they are still the top two. It is important to note that “boxing” your bet will double (x2) the cost of your initial wager.
- Quinella: A Quinella bet allows you to pick the two horses that will place first and second in any order. It has the same structure as an Exacta bet that is “boxed.” The difference is you don’t have to double your wager to place a Quinella bet. Also, the reason people still choose to wager Exacta “box” over a Quinella bet is that Exacta “box” typically has higher payouts.
- Trifecta: A Trifecta bet means you have to select the first, second, and third-place horses in the correct order. Like an Exacta bet, you can also “box” a Trifecta bet. Considering there are more options, you have to pay more to “box” your Trifecta bet; it usually costs x6 your initial wager.
- Superfecta: A Superfecta bet means you have to choose the first, second, third, and fourth-place horses in exact order. This is by far one of the most challenging wagers you can place on horses. Due to difficulty, the payouts are usually great. Unfortunately, with a Superfecta, you can not “box” your bet.
- Super Hi-5: A Super Hi-5 or a Pentafecta wager is by far the most difficult in horse racing. To Hit a Super Hi-5 bet, you have to select the first-fifth place horses in exact order. Like the Superfecta, you can not “box” your wager.
- Daily Double: Daily Double wagers are where bettors have to select the winning horse in two consecutive races. Most tracks have their Daily Double eligible races as the first two races of the day. Some tracks offer a late Daily Double, which is the last two races. If you’re lucky, you will find yourself at a track that offers rolling Daily Doubles in which you can choose any two consecutive races through the day. For a Daily Double to hit, you must select the exact winning horse in two consecutive races.
- Pick 3: Pick 3 is similar to the Daily Double, but you have to select the winning horse for three consecutive races. Most of the time, these wagers are “rolling” meaning you can select any three consecutive races throughout the day. Most tracks also offer Pick 4, 5, and 6.
Types of horse races
While understanding how to bet on horse racing is important, it is also essential to understand the different types of horse races. Horses don’t just get to show up to the big races like the Kentucky Derby; they have to work their way through the different tiers of races to get there. While there are exceptions to this, typically, a horse will work its way through these tiers.
This list will describe the different tiers of horse racing, starting from the lowest tier to the highest.
Maiden races are for horses that have never won a race before. In the horse racing community, when a horse gets its first win, it’s known as “breaking its maiden”. There are two types of Maiden races:
- Maiden Special Weight: A Maiden Special Weight race is for high-quality horses expected to excel and break their maiden quickly.
- Maiden Claiming: Maiden Claiming races are for horses that have failed to meet expectations in Maiden Special Weight races. This is also where horses who aren’t expected to be good begin their careers.
Claiming races typically run the lowest-class horses. Claiming races showcase horses that are for sale or waiting to “be claimed.” The rules of claiming races can be odd as if you wish to buy a horse, you have to pay pre-race. The price is set, and the deal goes through no matter the outcome of the race or the horse’s health. There are different levels of claiming races, and similar quality horses compete against each other. Owners choose what horses can enter claiming races, but they must be available for sale to enter. This is also the most common type of race seen at tracks around the world.
Allowance races are the next tier up from claiming races. The horses are not for sale, and the purse for these races is generally much higher. Allowance races allow horses to carry different weights to give them an advantage, but there are stipulations. These stipulations usually revolve around the last race won or a certain amount of money won. Essentially the poorer a horse has performed, the more weight they can remove, which can be a huge advantage.
Stakes races are the premier tier of horse racing. These races showcase the best of the best and have the highest purses. There are graded stake races that showcase the best horses from around the world. There are also local stake races that usually require that the horse must be bred in-state. These are some of the most exciting races and can gain huge paydays at major tracks.
Popular horse races to bet on
There are thousands of horse tracks around the country. While you can bet on all of them, it is probably best to start small, learn horse racing and work your way up. Regardless, here are some of the most popular horse races to bet on.
- Kentucky Derby: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky
- Preakness Stakes: Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore, Maryland
- Belmont Stakes: Belmont Park, Elmont, New York
- Breeders Cup: Location changes yearly
Horse racing stats and how to use them in your bets
Like any other sports betting, doing research will help increase your chances of winning bets. This list is some of the most basic stats you need to understand to make smart bets at the horse track.
- Workouts: This one seems simple, but it is important. You can judge previous finishes and anything else, but knowing how a horse performed on the track it’s about to run on during workouts is essential.
- Fractional times: These are recorded at each third of the track in a race. These are important to compare, as you can get an idea of horses that start fast, finish slow, or maintain a solid pace throughout.
- Speed & Pace: While seemingly synonymous, these two are completely different. The pace is described as the overall speed a race was run by a horse. This also applies to the pace of all of the horses in the race, so it showcases how a horse handled itself against the competition. On the other hand, Speed is the rate of motion that a horse travels at during a given race. Each of these is an important stats to know when picking horses.
- Class: Refers to the type of race a horse is running (described above). Typically you can see the class of the last race a horse participated in. This can be a major indicator of how a horse will perform when compared with its last few finishes. For instance, a horse that has just moved up a tier may not be as successful as they were in their last race.
- Power: A single-digit number that represents a combination of speed, pace, and class. It is essentially a ranking system and can be very helpful when picking horses. It is still recommended to view the individual stats as well.
- Jockey and trainer: They are a highly important stat in horse racing. While knowing and understanding the horse is important, it is just as important to know who trained them and who is riding them. Some trainers are better than others, and it shows, same goes with jockeys. This is an essential part of picking a horse for a race.
- Track surface/conditions: Just like in all outdoor sports, knowing the conditions and the state of the track surface is important. A bad track or wet conditions can change the entire outcome of races. You should never overlook this.
- Earnings and finishes: These are more like the cherry on top of the other stats. While it is important, it should be one of the last things you look at. For instance, in a stakes race, most horses will usually have solid finishes and earnings, so the other stats become more key. Still, it is always nice to wager on a horse that you know is a consistent competitor.
Pari-mutuel betting tips
Pari-mutuel betting can be complicated for beginners, but it will get easier. While it is a different form of gambling and can be difficult to gauge considering there are no starting odds, there are still some horse race betting tips and strategies that can help you succeed at the track.
Here are some key things to look at when picking horses to bet on.
- Average speed rating: This is a single-digit number that indicates exactly how a horse performs. Average speed ratings take into account raw speed, different tracks, track conditions, and position. Analyzing the average speed rating is a simple way to understand how a horse has performed in the past. It will also give you an idea of how they will race when you wager on them.
- Recent finishes: This allow bettors to view how a horse has placed in its last few races. It will show position, speed, fractional times, etc. Whenever you wager on horses, it is key to analyze this section. It will give you a solid idea of how a horse should finish in the upcoming race. This can be extremely helpful for exotic bets.
- Lifetime earnings: This will show you the total amount of money in purses a horse has won. This stat is somewhat less important and can be inflated due to where they have raced and against what level of competition. While this may seem like a solid stat, it is recommended to analyze actual stats over lifetime purse winnings.